Padres pitcher, Kauai native Kirby Yates talks about new contract, playing in MLB Japan All-Star Series

  • Dennis Fujimoto / The Garden Island file

    In this Nov. 28, 2017, file photo, Kirby Yates speaks with The Garden Island in Lihue.

  • San Diego Padres’ Francisco Mejia, left, congratulates pitcher Kirby Yates after the 5-0 win over the San Francisco Giants at the end of a baseball game, Monday, Sept. 24, 2018, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

  • San Diego Padres pitcher Kirby Yates works against the San Francisco Giants in the ninth inning of a baseball game, Monday, Sept. 24, 2018, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Prior to this past season, San Diego Padres pitcher Kirby Yates said his goal for 2018 was to be better than he was the last season.

For his efforts, the Padres rewarded the Omao native.

The Associated Press reported last week that Yates agreed to a one-year deal worth $3 million.

“It’s good. It’s where I want to be. At this stage of my career, I get to go through the arbitration process and reap the benefits of having a good year, and basically keeping a job,” Yates said in a phone interview Wednesday from Arizona, where he resides.

“It was one of the stages of my career where you try to stay healthy for a year and try to put up some numbers, and that way, you can be at the receiving end of it. Just went through my second year of arbitration. I have one more, then I get to go to free agency. So, I’m just trying to keep it together for the next couple of years.”

When asked if he was hoping for a longer contract, he said he’d like to have that deal but he leaves that for his agent.

“It’s tricky. You always want a multi-year deal. Not saying that the books are closed on that,” he said. “You can always get extended. They could call me tomorrow and say they want to extend me, or work out an extension. That’s what I would prefer. In all honesty, everybody would prefer an extension and get those couple of years, or three or four guaranteed years or whatever. You just control what you can control. That’s not on me. I have an agent that handles that, and the team has to be willing to offer it.”

Becoming the closer

Yates, 31, was a late-inning reliever when the season started. The Kauai High School alumnus became the team’s closer midseason when the Padres traded all-star pitcher Brad Hand to the Cleveland Indians in July.

“As far as the role, I didn’t feel it was that big of a change. I think people kind of make it bigger than it is,” he said. “Obviously, the closer role is the most important role in the bullpen, but that’s not necessarily the biggest part of the game. … If you can do a seventh or eighth inning and do it pretty successfully, I think you’re pretty prepared to handle a ninth inning. The nerves are a little bit different, but once you get over that, it’s a job that you’re fully prepared to do. I like it. I think it’s a lot of fun to have the ball in your hand and go get your team a W. I take pretty good pride in that. That’s the position I would like to be in.”

This past season, Yates posted a 2.14 ERA, 12 saves and a 5-3 record. In 63 innings pitched, he had 90 strikeouts, allowed 41 hits and, 17 walks and 15 earned runs.

“Obviously, it was good. I think it was one of those years that everything went right,” Yates said. “I felt good health-wise the entire year. My stuff was pretty good. When I needed to catch a break and have someone hit a ball at somebody, I got that, too. It’s just one of those seasons you dream for, where everything went right, and I was able to take advantage of it.”

Yates made his Major League debut in 2014 for the Tampa Bay Rays. He’s previously also played for the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Angels. He was claimed off waivers by the Padres in 2017.

He said this has been his best season yet after spending previous years struggling and moving from team to team.

“I think it’s satisfying. Obviously, I’m proud of it. I was proud I was able to accomplish that and be a backend-bullpen type of guy and be a closer for a little bit,” he said. “I proved to myself I can do it. Now, to me, the next challenge is proving that I can be a closer for an entire season.”

Going to Japan

In November, Yates was part of the Major League Baseball All-Star team that participated in the 2018 MLB Japan All-Star Series. Games were played in Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagoya.

“I got asked, maybe in the beginning of September, if I’d be interested in going to Japan and doing the tour,” he said. “I remember (Evan Longoria) went a few years ago when I was his teammate, I think in 2014, after my rookie year. … Longo’s with the Giants now, so I get to play him a few times. I got see him before a game, and I talked to him. ‘Hey, what was that Japan trip like?’ He said, ‘Dude, it was awesome.’ I was like, ‘I was just invited to go.’ He said, ‘You should go.’”

Prior to leaving for Japan, the MLB All-Stars held workouts at the Les Murakami Stadium in Honolulu.

“I think anybody that’s ever played in the big leagues, you get to see people. You being on a team, you get to go home and play in their cities, or play close to home. It’s not really an option for us Hawaii boys,” Yates said. “To be fortunate enough to be on that team and go to Oahu, to me, it was pretty surreal. It was a pretty crazy feeling to have kids yelling your name and everybody knows who were and people generally telling you that they’re proud of you. ‘Keep it up. You’re making Hawaii proud.’ I’m very humbled to be a part of that. To experience that, it’s something I’ll never forget. It will always be one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in a baseball uniform.”

On the field, the Japan tour didn’t go so well for the MLB team. Samurai Japan, the country’s national baseball team, defeated the MLB All-Stars in the six-game series, 5-1.

The trip itself, though, was an incredible experience, Yates said.

“I was blown away. It was by far the coolest trip I’ve ever been on,” he said. “From top to bottom, the way MLB takes care of you, it’s first-class. Then to get over there and have them portray their game of baseball, see their fans and their stadiums, be in their cities, it was really, really cool. … I got to experience their culture and eat all their food. I was just blown away.”

Onwards and upwards

Since the Japan tour, Yates has been resting, working out and spending time with his family. Spring training begins next month.

As for the upcoming season, his goal is the same as before.

“The same as last year — be better and don’t settle for anything, and find ways to push myself,” he said. “I had a good year last year. There’s ways you can improve, and there’s things I want to be better at. I would like to walk less people and strike out more guys. I think last year, what I did good was being efficient night in and night out. I didn’t have those nights where I felt like I didn’t have good stuff and I couldn’t get anybody out. I kind of got away from that just a tiny bit, but I was able to be consistent on a nightly basis. That’s what I’m hoping for.”

Though Yates expects to have that closer’s role, he isn’t taking it for granted.

“Whether I get that opportunity or not, that’s to be determined. I welcome that opportunity. I want to take that opportunity and run with it if it’s given to me,” he said. “I think I’ve been preparing for this for a while, and still preparing here in this offseason. You never approach a season like, ‘Go out there and suck.’ You approach the season to be as good as you can be every year.”

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Nick Celario, sports writer, can be reached at 245-0437 or ncelario@thegardenisland.com.

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